Underoath’s Spencer Chamberlain talks breakup, reunion, getting sober and returning to St. Petersburg

Published April 20 2018
Updated April 23 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — HGTV fanatic that he is, Spencer Chamberlain sees a metaphor for his band in the ever-evolving St. Petersburg skyline.

"When you go downtown and you look at the ONE, that used to be a dirt parking lot," said the singer, referring to a 41-story condo tower under construction at First Avenue N and First Street. "That’s what Underoath was. We had this rickety old building in the best part of town. We had to knock it down and figure out: What’s the best thing we could do with this?"

For Underoath, the answer lies in new album Erase Me, which this month debuted near the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart. It’s the Tampa metalcore band’s first LP in eight years, and first since a three-year breakup that ended in 2016. They’ll sign copies at Daddy Kool Records on Monday.

FROM 2016: Underoath electrifies in reunion tour kickoff in St. Petersburg

Erase Me is also Underoath’s first album since renouncing the Christian band label that helped them become one of Tampa Bay’s most successful musical exports (two Grammy nominations, a pair of gold records, millions of fans around the world), but which no longer felt genuine.

And then there was Chamberlain’s own personal renovation: A return to St. Petersburg after three years in Brooklyn, sober for the first time in more than a decade.

"My life got kind of worse for a while, and then it just started to turn around at one point," said Chamberlain, 34, sipping iced coffee in the shade outside Bandit Coffee Co. "I think I leaned how to love myself, to be okay with who I am again."

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When Underoath broke up in 2013 after years of increasing band tension, Chamberlain said he took it harder than others. He moved to Brooklyn, a geographic and symbolic fresh start. He started a new band called Sleepwave that had some success, and he flew around the country working on songs for other people. But he harbored a grudge about Underoath’s breakup, one that lasted well into their successful global reunion tour.

That anger and frustration manifested itself in more drug use — cocaine, especially, but whatever Chamberlain could get. He was a high-functioning addict who hid his habit well; some Underoath members never knew the extent of it. But after they reunited, he realized he had to take better care of his body.

"I just got to a point where it was like, nothing really works, and I just kind of feel sick all the time," he said. "There’s got to be a time in your life when you decide, enough’s enough. Because you never know with that kind of stuff. You could get high one night and it could kill you. You could have a heart attack, a stroke, whatever."

After quitting, Chamberlain suffered sporadic bouts of deep depression. But Aaron Gillespie — Underoath’s founding drummer and co-vocalist, with whom Chamberlain writes the band’s lyrics — set him up with a substance abuse therapist. Chamberlain never paid a dime.

"That’s a real friend," Chamberlain said. "Aaron had taken everything into his own hands. He already had a plan. He waited for me to be ready for it."

Chamberlain and Gillespie — who had gone through an ugly divorce — channeled their lives’ frustrations into Erase Me, whose lyrics not only challenge ideas of faith, but include references to drugs and even the band’s first f-bombs. As if all this didn’t make it clear, the band came right out and announced they no longer identified as a Christian act, shocking some longtime fans.

But it had to happen, Chamberlain says. The Christian tag was an albatross applied early on that prevented the band from evolving — and, more importantly, from talking honestly about it with one another.

"We’ve never written a song about it; we’re not a praise and worship band," he said. "At one point we were all on the same page with what we believed in. Now, some of us are, some of us aren’t. And we have more talks about it on the bus, about what is life, and where we all are, now that there’s no screen in front of us. We’re able to communicate."

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Underoath is about to hit the road, including gigs next weekend at rock festivals in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale. Between legs, Chamberlain will be back in St. Petersburg. He moved back last fall, shortly after recording Erase Me; he lives with his brother in a downtown condo, with all of St. Pete’s bustle within walking distance.

But things are different now. Returning to St. Pete sober, he feared falling into old habits. He deleted contacts, avoided bars where he might bump into dealers and bad influences.

"I have a lot of friends here who think I’m a d--- right now, but one day they’ll kind of understand," he said. "It’s my life and my journey and I f---ed it up. The price I’m paying is losing some friends and kind of starting over. Maybe people hate me. And I’m okay with that. If you’re a real friend, you’ll understand."

The walls are down. The smoke has settled. For Chamberlain and Underoath, the build-out now can really begin.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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